We all know that we need to exercise to improve our physical fitness, yet rarely do we think of the need to perform fitness training for our brain.

The subject becomes important as we age. Normal age-related memory decline affects more than half of all seniors, with those over 80 being the most vulnerable.

A new UCLA study has found that a memory fitness program offered to older adults in their senior living communities helped improve their ability to recognize and recall words, benefitting their verbal learning and retention.

Researchers found the program improved seniors’ self-perceived memory, an important factor in maintaining a positive outlook on life while aging.

The average age of participants in the study was 81. It is not clear whether these improvements would be found in younger adults, as few brain fitness studies have been conducted on younger adults.

“It was exciting to see how much older adults participate in a memory fitness program and improve,” said study author Dr. Karen Miller. “The study demonstrates that it’s never too late to learn new skills to enhance one’s life.”

As people get older, it takes longer to learn new information and to retrieve it, including names, dates, the location of household objects, meetings, and appointments, according to the study’s senior author, Dr. Gary Small, UCLA’s Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging and director of the UCLA Longevity Center.

The six-week, 12-session program was different from other cognitive training courses in that it offered not only memory-training techniques but also education about lifestyle factors that may impact memory ability and overall brain health.

As part of the curriculum, participants received health education on the value of a diet rich in antioxidants, the importance of daily physical exercise and stress reduction.

“Lifestyle and environmental factors may play a role in cognitive decline, so our program included education about healthy living in addition to memory-training techniques,” said Small.

The study involved 115 seniors living in two full-service continuing-care retirement communities in Maryland.

Participants lived in the “independent” level of care in these communities and had memory complaints, but they had not been diagnosed with dementia and were not taking any medications for memory loss.

Half the participants were enrolled in the memory fitness program and received memory testing before beginning the program and after completion to assess improvement. The other half were placed on a waiting list for the program and acted as study controls.

Miller and Small developed a scripted curriculum for trainers (who possessed a health background), and they provided a companion workbook for participants.

The one-hour education sessions included content on how memory works; quick strategies for remembering names, faces and numbers; and training on basic memory tools such as linking ideas and creating visual images.

Trainers also discussed the role of a healthy lifestyle in protecting and maintaining memory.

Among the older adults attending the classes, the researchers found marked improvement in verbal memory, as well as improvements in how they perceived their memory, compared with the controls.

“The study suggests that the memory fitness program may be a cost-effective means of addressing some of the memory-related concerns of healthy older adults,” Parrish added.

The study is found in the September issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Source: University of California – Los Angeles Health Sciences